FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush officials break with tribes on trust

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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2002

Department of Interior officials on Thursday announced their intent to more forward with critical changes in the management of Indian trust assets without the consent of tribal leaders.

At an emotional meeting in the Washington, D.C., area, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb acknowledged he was under intense pressure to respond to a federal judge overseeing the debacle. He and Secretary Gale Norton were held in contempt of court last week for providing misleading information about efforts to fix the broken system.

"The last 12 days have been very difficult for me," he told tribal leaders. "I'm not accustomed to reading my name in the paper as being in contempt of court -- a fraud upon the court."

"I didn't lie to anybody," he continued. "I'm not going to have that happen again if I can possibly prevent it."

Accusing members of a joint federal-tribal task force of not helping advance the Bush administration's agenda on trust reform, McCaleb and other officials said they would move aggressively to respond to a January 6, 2003, deadline imposed by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. The department, they said, will submit a comprehensive reorganization and management plan aimed at meeting its fiduciary obligations to 500,000 American Indians whose funds have been mishandled for more than a century.

"We didn't write the court opinion," said Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason. "We feel like that's the time-line we got."

The announcement came hours after the nation's largest tribe made a dramatic exit. Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye and Speaker Ed T. Begay, the tribe's legislative leader, said they could no longer work with officials who are in breach of trust to Indian people.

"We find it difficult to continue with this reform effort while at the same time our trustee-delegate argues that they do not have a trust duty to Indian nations," said Begaye.

The remaining tribal members on the task force did not join the Navajo withdrawal. But they expressed "disappointment" with the development and sympathized with the tribe's position.

"It's kind of like protecting a dad who hasn't paid child support in a long time," said Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Tribe of Alaska, in reference to the federal government. "That's the kind of mentality we are dealing with here."

The tribal leaders were more upset with the department's obstinance. They predicted a full-out disaster similar to the heavily criticized proposal to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its trust duties, a plan Norton unleashed on Indian Country without tribal input.

"I'm a little concerned that all of sudden now, because the court has asked you to provide an organizational plan," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Washington's Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, "that you are now using that as a vehicle to go ahead and walk around this process and say 'We're sorry, the court is now instructing us to do that. So we're going to have to do what we want to do anyhow.'"

"You can't do it," he charged. "If you do it, then quite frankly, you are going to put something together that is going to be disingenuous."

Other task force members echoed that view. "We don't want a plan that's half-baked," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians and a tribal co-chair of the task force.

"No one's going to be able to come up with a comprehensive plan," added John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma.

McCaleb defended the department and reinforced that it was necessary to meet the court's requirements. "The defendants in this case cannot stumble," he told the tribes. "We cannot delay, we cannot procrastinate."

"I want to consult, I want a consensus. But failing in that . . . we will go ahead," he added. "I don't want to be misunderstood on that point."

Lamberth, in his September 17 decision, ordered the Interior to provide two key items: a plan to conduct an historical accounting for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust and a plan to bring itself into compliance with its obligations owed to the IIM beneficiaries. The latter must describe "in detail" the standards the department will use to administer the IIM accounts.

McCaleb added a departmental reorganization and a method to address fractionation of Indian lands as vital to the Bush administration's game plan. He said the Interior -- along with the Department of Justice -- will proceed independent of the task force but that he would "share" information with the tribes as the deadline approached.

"I've got a January 6 date with a gun cocked," he told the tribal leaders. "And I'm sorry if you don't like that and you don't think it's doable."

The task force still plans to meet in Billings, Montana, in October and return to Washington, D.C., for a follow-up. The tribes have set up a new structure to deal with the issues raised by the department. They also plan to go to Congress with legislative proposals independent of the Interior to address reorganization, trust standards and independent oversight of trust.

Relevant Documents:
Remarks: President Begaye (9/26) | Remarks: Speaker Begaye (9/26) | Navajo Nation Press Release (9/26)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Related Stories:
Norton drafts Indian land grab (9/26)
Indian trust 'a national disgrace' (9/25)
Norton's denials ring hollow (9/20)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Tribal leaders debate trust reform bill (5/23)
McCaleb gets too close to termination (1/29)
Interior moving to close trust fund accounts (1/25)